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Virginia police routinely use secret GPS pings to track people’s cell phones

‘It’s as if the police tagged them with a chip under their skin’

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Scott Durvin says he faced aggressive questioning from a Chesterfield County Police detective after his friend died of a drug overdose at the end of 2019. What he didn’t know at the time was that police had also begun secretly tracking his whereabouts by ordering Verizon Wireless to regularly ping his phone’s GPS and report his location back to detectives in real time.

“That’s kind of shocking, really,” Durvin said, reached by phone at the same number police were using to follow him virtually a little more than two years ago. “The detective would call me all the time and try to get me to give them information and he would threaten to lock me up. But I didn’t have anything to do with it and he finally left me alone.”

Police never described Durvin as a suspect in the search warrant application they submitted seeking permission to track him and court records show he has not been charged with any crimes in Virginia since police took out the warrant.

Instead, officers wrote that they had found voicemails from Durvin on the overdose victim’s phone and thought tracking his location might help them figure out who supplied the deadly dose of heroin, noting that Durvin had been with the man during what appeared to be a prior overdose in Richmond.

The case offers a glimpse into a surveillance technique that’s become commonplace for police but is mostly unknown among the general public: cell phone location tracking.

Public records requests submitted to a sampling of 18 police departments around the state found officers used the technique to conduct more than 7,000 days worth of surveillance in 2020. Court records show the tracking efforts spanned cases ranging from high-profile murders to minor larcenies.

A state law passed with little notice in 2015 authorizes the surveillance as long as police first obtain a search warrant from a magistrate or judge, but in practice, the bar for judicial approval isn’t particularly high. Officers simply have to attest in an affidavit that they have probable cause that the tracking data is “relevant to a crime that is being committed or has been committed.”

The warrants are limited by law to 30 days but can be — and often are — renewed monthly by a judge.

“I don’t think people know that their cell phones can be converted to tracking devices by police with no notice,” said Steve Benjamin, a criminal defense lawyer in Richmond who said he’s recently noticed an uptick in cases in which officers employed the technique. “And the reality of modern life is everyone has their phone on them during the day and on their nightstand at night. … It’s as if the police tagged them with a chip under their skin, and people have no idea how easily this is accomplished.”

In Durvin’s case, the justification police gave for tracking him came down to a single paragraph in the search warrant application asserting officers believed it might help their case.

“It is in your affiant’s experience that users of narcotics will associate with other users and suppliers of narcotics in the drug trade,” wrote Det. G. Hopkins. “Your affiant believes the real time location data … will assist in the on-going investigation into the supplier of narcotics.”

‘We will use all lawful tools at our disposal’

Records reviewed by the Mercury suggest Chesterfield police are among the more prolific users of the technology in Virginia.

The department makes no apologies for its embrace of phone tracking. “We exist to preserve human life and protect the vulnerable, and we will use all lawful tools at our disposal to do so,” Chesterfield County Police Spokeswoman Elizabeth Caroon said in a statement.

To assess how widely police in Virginia employ cellphone tracking, the Mercury submitted Freedom of Information Act requests to police departments around the state seeking billing records from telephone companies, which charge police departments daily or monthly fees to report their customers’ location to officers.

We found:

• At least nine of the 18 police departments sampled track cell phones, but how frequently varied considerably by department. At the high end, Chesterfield accounted for 4,500 days of tracking and 346 warrants, while Norfolk Police, at the low end, reported 63 days of tracking across six warrants.

• Two departments indicated they had relevant invoices but requested hundreds of dollars to provide the records to the Mercury: Loudoun County estimated it would cost $361 to fulfill the request. Alexandria requested $1,360 and ignored emails seeking an explanation for the high price tag.

• The remaining seven departments responded that they did not have any relevant billing records, indicating they don’t use the technique.

• Only one of the departments surveyed, Alexandria, indicated it had an internal policy governing how their officers use cellphone tracking, but a copy of the document provided by the city was entirely redacted.

To understand what kinds of cases police are using the technology to investigate, the Mercury also reviewed all unsealed search warrant applications filed in 2020 in the city of Richmond and Chesterfield County. The documents, which are presented to magistrates or circuit court judges to justify and obtain permission to conduct the surveillance, describe the crimes under investigation and the basic facts of the individual cases.

Drug investigations accounted for more than 60 percent of the search warrants taken out in the two jurisdictions. Larcenies were the second most frequent category. Major crimes like murders, rapes and abductions made up a fraction of the tracking requests, accounting for just under 25 of the nearly 400 warrants filed in the jurisdictions that year.

Phone companies charge police to surveille customers

Real-time location warrants in Virginia are addressed to telephone companies, ordering them to regularly ping a customers’ phone for its GPS location and share the results with police. All four major telecoms charge varying rates to surveille their customers on behalf of law enforcement.

T-Mobile charged $30 per day, which comes to $900 per month of tracking.

AT&T charged a monthly service fee of $100 and an additional $25 per day the service is utilized, which comes to $850 per 30 days of tracking, according to bills reviewed by the Mercury.

Verizon calls the service “periodic location updates,” charging $5 per day on top of a monthly service fee of $100, which comes to $200 per 30 days of tracking.

Sprint offered the cheapest prices to report locations back to law enforcement, charging a flat fee of $100 per month.

In Richmond, Maj. Ronnie Armstead said in an interview the department leaves it to individual detectives to determine when and how to use cell phone tracking. And he said officers don’t distinguish between major and minor cases — they just want to solve crimes: “These detectives do a thorough investigation,” he said. “They don’t care what size fish you are.”

In practice, that means officers used the technique in high-stakes drug investigations as well as more run-of-the-mill investigations.

Court records show police used phone tracking extensively in the investigation that led to the arrest of Nikike Tyler, who authorities allege led a regional drug ring that imported and distributed large quantities of heroin, cocaine and marijuana. Search warrants filed by a regional drug task force in Richmond indicate officers tracked Tyler’s cell phone for more than a year, updating warrants as he regularly changed cell phone numbers, according to affidavits on file.

Records show police also turned to location tracking when a former employee of a Mexican food restaurant in downtown Richmond, Café Ole, was accused by an ex-girlfriend of stealing $200 from the register. According to the warrant on file, a Richmond officer received permission to track the man’s location for 30 days after a visit to his mother’s house in Goochland failed to turn him up.

Sometimes, police sought the warrants even in cases where officers weren’t sure who exactly they were tracking.

In one Chesterfield search warrant application, an officer wrote in their affidavit that an unnamed person he described as “a reliable confidential source” had given him the phone number for an alleged drug dealer named “Weedy” who his source had heard was coming to the Richmond area to sell heroin. A magistrate approved the warrant based on the officer’s justification that “real time location data collected during this investigation will assist in identifying ‘Weedy,’ potential co-conspirators and locations utilized for conducting drug transactions.”

‘I feel like my privacy was violated‘

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that warrantless cellphone tracking is unconstitutional back in 2012. Since then, there’s been limited public discussion or awareness of the kinds of tracking warrants the judiciary is approving.

When Virginia passed a law three years later setting out the warrant requirement in state code, it drew almost no notice in the General Assembly, passing unanimously on every vote. The bill’s patron, then-Del. Manoli Loupassi, a Richmond lawyer, said he had little recollection of the legislation and was surprised to hear how often police now use the statute to enable cell phone tracking.

“I think the original intent was to capture and ferret out extremely serious criminality,” Loupassi said. “Not just nothing cases. And this is one of the millions of examples of how the road to hell can be paved with good intentions.”

Police officials, meanwhile, argue it only makes sense to take advantage of technological advances. Dana Schrad, the executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, said departments often don’t have the resources to conduct physical surveillance. And even if they did, she said cell phone tracking is safer.

“It may be considered an intrusive way of gathering data on someone, but it’s certainly less dangerous than physical tracking,” she said.

Back in Chesterfield, police officials described their use of cell phone tracking as part of an effort to proactively investigate drug crimes, suggesting the effort had helped keep the number of fatal overdoses from rising in the county.

“We believe our continued robust enforcement efforts are part of why the numbers haven’t increased further in Chesterfield,” Caroon, the department’s spokeswoman, said.

Meanwhile, Durvin, who Chesterfield police tracked in the 2020 overdose investigation, counts himself among those who considers the technique intrusive. “It’s kind of f**ked up,” he said. “I feel like my privacy was violated. And who’s to say they ain’t still doing it?”

By the numbers

Use of real time location tracking varies significantly by police department, according to billing records and search warrants reviewed by the Mercury.

Chesterfield County Police: Conducted more than 4,500 days of cell phone location surveillance and obtained 346 real-time location search warrants in 2020, according to billing and court records.

Arlington County: Conducted an unknown number of days of surveillance across an unknown number of warrants, but provided purchase orders for GPS location surveillance totaling $86,000, which is the second highest amount reported of localities surveyed.

Hanover County Sheriff’s Office: Conducted 1,407 days of surveillance and obtained at least 71 real-time location search warrants.

Virginia Beach Police Department: 840 days of surveillance across at least 51 real time location warrants.

Fairfax County Police Department: An unknown number of days of surveillance across 56 real time location warrants.

Richmond City Police: Conducted an unknown number of days of surveillance across at least 31 real time location warrants.

Spotsylvania County Sheriff’s Office: 254 days of surveillance across at least 25 warrants.

Prince William Police Department: 76 days of surveillance across at least 4 warrants.

Norfolk Police Department: 63 days of surveillance across at least four warrants.

Two additional departments indicated that they utilize real-time location warrants but requested high fees to provide records documenting the surveillance: Alexandria Police Department and Loudoun County Sheriff’s Department. (Fairfax Police requested more than $550 to provide the invoices requested but voluntarily reported that they took out 56 of the warrants in 2020.)

The following departments either indicated through their responses to the Mercury that they do not use real time location warrants or a review of court records turned up no real-time warrants: Chesapeake Police Department, Hampton Police Department, King William County Sheriff’s Office, Portsmouth Police Department, Roanoke County Sheriff’s Department, Roanoke City Police Department, Stafford County Sheriff’s Department.

All figures are for invoices received in 2020 except in the case of Hanover, which provided figures for 2021.

The days of surveillance by Chesterfield County Police are partially estimated because the department was the only one to redact dates of surveillance on its invoices and one wireless carrier, Sprint, charges a flat monthly fee, making it impossible to calculate the number of days tracked based on invoice totals. However, the figure most likely represents an undercount because the department provided no receipts from Verizon despite filing warrants requesting tracking from the company.

Richmond Police Department was the only department that provided no response to a FOIA request for billing records and figures are based on a review of court records.

Virginia Mercury news intern Jackie Llanos Hernandez contributed to this report.

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Proposed constitutional amendment could restore former felons’ voting rights

A proposed constitutional amendment making headway in the Virginia General Assembly seeks to grant former felons the right to vote.

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By Safia Abdulahi

A proposed constitutional amendment making headway in the Virginia General Assembly would grant former felons the right to vote.

Senate Bill 21, introduced by Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, also removes a prohibition preventing people from voting who were declared by the court as mentally incompetent. The legislation instead prohibits people from casting ballots if they lack the capacity to understand the act of voting.

Locke also introduced SB 767, which outlines how former felons would be enabled and encouraged to vote if the proposed constitutional amendment passes. The Senate passed both measures.

To amend the Virginia constitution, lawmakers need to pass the legislation by majority vote for two consecutive years and then voters would decide in November through a referendum. Lawmakers passed the proposed constitutional amendment last year.

Virginians with past felony convictions are barred from voting in elections unless the governor or another appropriate authority restores their rights. Sheba Williams couldn’t vote for years after being convicted of a felony. She is now the founder and executive director of Nolef Turns, a Richmond-based criminal justice advocacy group.

Williams said she lost her right to vote for nine years due to a wrongful embezzlement conviction. Former Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell reinstated her voting rights in 2013.

“Our group does restoration rights and voter registration for thousands of Virginians who lose their rights and come back and have to get it reinstated by the governor’s office,” Williams said.

The advocacy group’s Right to Vote Campaign is a nearly three-year initiative to amend the Virginia Constitution and not disqualify voters over past convictions.

More than 5 million former felons – and some people with misdemeanors – who completed their sentences can’t vote, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Voter disenfranchisement is one of the issues that is broken in the criminal legal system, said Brad Haywood, executive director of advocacy group Justice Forward Virginia.

“If you see the world as we do, and you believe that the criminal justice system disenfranchisement of the institution of slavery, the disenfranchisement of people who commit certain crimes obviously fits within that paradigm,” Haywood said.

Haywood works as a public defender in Northern Virginia and has represented over 3,000 individuals with felony cases.

“We also know the message it sends to people who are caught up in the criminal justice system, and they’re basically being told that ‘you don’t matter anymore,’” Haywood said. “You’re not part of this participatory democracy we claim to have.”

Former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe restored voting rights in 2016 to about 200,000 felons through a blanket executive order. The Virginia Supreme Court eventually ruled that McAuliffe’s executive order was unconstitutional. The court found that restoring voting rights would need to be on a case-by-case basis.

There are over 250,000 Virginians barred from the ballot box due to a previous conviction, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Both measures have advanced to the House but have not been assigned a committee.

The laws would take effect on Jan.1, 2023, if voters pass the proposed referendum.

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Tow Truck Pirate is Raiding the Roads of Richmond – Correction Not a Pirate at All, Lawful Act Committed

It’s a new (to us) brazen method for stealing cars and it takes mere seconds.

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RPD issued this email at 7:15 PM correcting their previous email from earlier in the day.

UPDATE: Tow Truck Determined to Have Engaged in Lawful Tow

Following new information received by detectives – the tow truck featured in today’s release about a possible vehicle theft has been identified and it has been determined the vehicle was lawfully towed.

While RPD officers were following the proper procedure for taking a report of a stolen vehicle, information provided by the tow company, which alerts public safety agencies to a legal tow, was not immediately forwarded to RPD. Therefore, RPD officers and detectives were not made aware the vehicle had been lawfully towed while investigating the missing vehicle.

While investigating the stolen vehicle report, detectives released a surveillance video to alert the public to the potential safety issue.

 

From RPD:

The Richmond Police Department is alerting the public to an unlicensed tow truck that is being used to quickly steal vehicles throughout the city. A surveillance camera video clip of the tow truck as it is stealing a vehicle in the Davee Gardens neighborhood.

Late morning on Sunday, October 24, the tow truck, black in color, backed towards a parked vehicle, lifted it with the tow gear and, within seconds, towed the vehicle away. A photo of the tow truck is also attached.

There are no logos or lettering on the truck, which is required by state code for tow trucks for hire.

Detectives ask the public to call 911 if they see this tow vehicle or any tow truck without company name, lettering or logo.

Anyone with information is asked to call 911 or Crime Stoppers at (804) 780-1000. The P3 Tips Crime Stoppers app for smartphones also may be used. All Crime Stoppers reporting methods are anonymous.

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Moody MS 8th-grader wins spell-off to capture pandemic edition of HCPS division-wide Spelling Bee

Ananya Nanduru clinched the 2021 title in the second round by correctly spelling “graticule,” the network of latitude and longitude lines on which a map is drawn.

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Ananya Nanduru of George H. Moody Middle School won a spell-off on January 26th to repeat as Henrico County Public Schools’ Division-wide Spelling Bee champion. The eighth-grader bested Hollie Kim, an L. Douglas Wilder Middle School sixth-grader, to win the tiebreaker, held virtually. Nanduru clinched the 2021 title in the second round by correctly spelling “graticule,” the network of latitude and longitude lines on which a map is drawn.

The winner was presented with the HCPS spelling trophy at Moody Middle School Tuesday afternoon by school division representatives, including Marcie Shea, School Board vice-chair and Tuckahoe District representative, and Amy Cashwell, superintendent. Nanduru’s is the third Moody Middle School championship in as many years. That means the trophy, which resides at the winning school, will remain on display at Moody. The award was made possible by a donation from four-time Henrico spelling champion Tejas Muthusamy, a former Moody student now at Maggie Walker Governor’s School. The Henrico Education Foundation had the trophy made.

Ordinarily, spelling champions from HCPS’ 46 elementary schools and 12 middle schools gather onstage at a middle school auditorium to determine the annual champion. Because of the pandemic, this year’s 58 school champions each took an online spelling test provided by Scripps, the media company that coordinates the national bee. Each was required to complete the test within a 15-minute window. When those results were tabulated, Nanduru and Kim had identical scores, and advanced to the virtual video spell-off.

Nanduru moves on to represent Henrico County Public Schools on March 15th in the Richmond Times-Dispatch Regional Spelling Bee, which will also be held virtually. The regional winner will advance to the Scripps National Spelling Bee, which is held in late May and televised by ESPN.

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